Vengeance Is Mine: Imamura as Observer

by Smart

“I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself.” – Shohei Imamura

Shohei Imamura was a director who was primarily concerned with the underbelly of regular Japanese life. Unlike much of Japanese cinema, his films did not showcase a Japan rich with spiritual traditions, history and cultural practices. Instead, Imamura filled his films with prostitutes, murderers, gamblers and peasants. This was what he saw as the ‘real’ Japan. His personal interest and study of anthropology influenced his films greatly, giving his character examinations an objective quality, akin to a scientist looking through a microscope. He explored relentlessly the grey area between reality and fiction, between man and monster. “No one understands what is real and what is fantasy. Imamura’s crime for the Japanese critics… is that he mixes the two indistinguishably.” (Donald Richie, 1983)

Perhaps his greatest example of this binary blending is in Vengeance Is Mine (1979), as it is a fictional story that is based on true events and approached with a documentary style perspective. The natural world was also of upmost importance for Imamura, and this helped to infuse his films with flowing, engaging backgrounds, which the audience could then relate to and feel a part of. He was a director of great intensity and subtlety. His strong world view and academic pursuits formed the base for many of his cinematic endeavours, each of which offered insight and criticism into the lower and middle classes of Japan.

Vengeance Is Mine arrived after the end of the Japanese New Wave, which spanned from the late 1950s into the early 1970s. Imamura was a key figure in this movement, up until the box-office failure of his film The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968). After that he spent a decade working on documentary films, until returning to fiction in 1979 with the powerful Vengeance Is Mine, the script for which was based on a biographical novel about Japanese serial killer Akira Nishiguchi, who evaded arrest for 78 days. Even the title of the film is deceptive, as it is never fully explained just what, or even who, the vengeance is for. This is just one of many ambiguities that present themselves throughout the film. Ken Ogata was cast in the lead role of the killer, and the character named Iwao Enokizu. His performance was both striking and horrific, as he captured the cold, psychotic emptiness of Enokizu with deft simplicity. Imamura’s direction was elegant and understated, giving the film a natural feel that added a chilling realism to the events being portrayed. Luckily for Imamura, Vengeance Is Mine was a critical and commercial success.

One of the most unique and creative aspects of Vengeance Is Mine is its structure, which is made apparent very early on in the film as being unconventional. We start after Enokizu has already been apprehended and is in the back of a police car on his way to the station for questioning. If we take this to be the present time of the film, then the majority of what follows should be considered flashbacks, some of which reaching as far back as Enokizu’s youth. There are also a series of flash-forwards which expand upon the consequences of Enokizu’s actions, with the film ultimately concluding 5 years after his state execution. However, the majority of the film does take place within the 78 days Enokizu spent on the run, and these scenes are presented in more or less chronological order, although severely fragmented by the competing timelines and subplots.

It is the police questioning Enokizu, in an attempt to get his full confession, which triggers the first flashback. We are teleported to the crime scene of his first murder; the area is swarming with people. The objective factuality of this scene is evident as both police officers and civilians were present to witness it. What follows, however, is Enokizu’s own account of his solitary actions, which are inherently reliant on him telling the truth to be accurate. Still, we are given no reason to doubt what we see in these flashbacks, and this is partly due to Imamura’s stylistic approach and Enokizu’s suggestion that he has no reason to lie, as he is already assured of the death penalty. This perspective memory limitation on Enokizu quickly evaporates as we begin to be shown events that he could not have had knowledge of, such as conversations occurring between his family members behind his back. There are also a number of extraneous subplots formed around side characters, with their conversations often being entirely unrelated to Enokizu and serving primarily to give a social juxtaposition and weight to the central narrative. Altogether this implies that what we are watching is not necessarily Enokizu’s recollection of his time on the run, but rather a conglomeration of research, multiple perspectives and partial omniscience, combined to form a single, documentary-esque narrative.

Violence and sex are strong concerns in Vengeance Is Mine. Enokizu harbours an obsession with both, although the reasons for this are deliberately left vague. A number of the flashbacks give us “a pocket-sized psychoanalytic explanation for Enokizu’s will to kill (issues with Dad), but this provides little illumination and less comfort.” (Nelson Kim, Senses of Cinema). Imamura created an unknowable, empty killer in Enokizu. We are only allowed to understand him through his actions, never his thoughts. There are clues in his responses, but nothing concrete. Many of his murders are not even shown to us, as Imamura avoids excess by instead allowing the audience to themselves return to their memory of the earlier, graphic kills. Eventually murder and sex combine into what can be seen as Enokizu’s greatest, and simultaneously most unexplainable, act of evil, as he kills without reason the woman who had so recklessly fallen in love with him.

In a brief scene we watch Enokizu as he urinates onto his own hands in an attempt to wash away the blood from a recent kill. Such moments of uncontrived realism are littered throughout Vengeance Is Mine, and reinforce the paranoid horror that the film fabricates with its atmosphere. Just previous to this we witness Enokizu murder a man with a hammer in a slow, brutal, and seemingly unprovoked attack. None of the killings in the film are portrayed as glamorous or empowering; instead they are difficult, awkward and messy. Imamura distils these scenes even further by removing artistic manipulation. He utilises minimal camera work and cuts only when necessary. There is no music during the killings, nothing to distract us from the cold hard reality of what is happening. It is in these ravenous moments of macabre that the film strikes closest to realism, and it does so with cruel immediacy.

The second facet of realism in Vengeance Is Mine can be found in the inclusion and treatment of secondary characters. These characters are usually either a part of Enokizu’s family or simply innocent bystanders that have stumbled unknowingly into his path. We come to know many of these characters through plain scenarios in which they act as normal people do, almost as if the camera were not rolling. At times they are formal, other times vulgar. Occasionally they will have conversations in private, lying in bed together, even while making love. Nudity is neither hidden nor eroticised, it just happens. Life flows naturally within Vengeance Is Mine. There is no narrative drive to force conflict or resolution for these secondary characters; they are merely content to be and act with their own autonomy. Even Enokizu is awarded several moments of quiet habitual behaviour. Sometimes we find him alone, eating, cleaning, thinking, and just generally engaging in the mundane activities that make up the bulk of human life. Such unexciting activities would almost always be omitted from a more traditional narrative, but here Imamura is seeking to not just tell a story, but also to create a functioning, real world around it. The world of Vengeance Is Mine extends and survives far beyond the constraints of the frame.

It would be an understatement to deem Enokizu’s psychology enigmatic. His inner workings are entirely closed off, despite us being so closely attached to him as our protagonist. Throughout the film we watch as he weaves his way into the lives of innocent people, forever changing them, often ending them. For these actions he shows no remorse, no anguish. He is a sociopath, capable of charming and manipulating people with ease. At one point he pretends to be a professor, the next day a lawyer, with both facades being for his personal gain. A flashback shows us a younger Enokizu in the army, where he was destructive and rebellious. This scene offers no new information about his character, but instead builds up a history of defiance. Was Enokizu born to kill, or did he develop the insatiable urge at a young age?

Often it seems as if Enokizu acts purely on impulse. At one point he even attempts to take his own life, as if by a spur of the moment decision. Because Imamura denies us any explanation for Enokizu’s behaviour, it makes him considerably more terrifying and remote. Enokizu says himself, after his arrest, “I killed innocent people, so I’ll be put to death.” His voice and face remain impassive as he expresses this simplistic understanding of his crimes. Soon after his father adds an enlightening bit of dialogue, “You can only kill those who never harmed you.” This is true, and implies that Enokizu’s father is openly claiming his responsibility for creating a ‘monster’. It also suggests that Enokizu’s acts of violence may be a result of his inner turmoil lashing out, which is something he is unable to deal with directly.

Vengeance Is Mine employs an uncomplicated visual style to great effect, and this is primarily what gives the film its documentary feel. Each composition is delicate and meaningful. Adequate distance is kept from the characters at all times to encourage observation. Soft, natural lighting and extensive use of practical lights create organic shadows that do not distract the viewer. Words appear onscreen to inform us of the time, place and event, as if we are watching a television news story. We often look through doors or windows, frames within the frame, securing us into the perspective of the spectator. Much of the film was shot on location, and as such looks authentic and beautiful at the same time, with the grand landscapes of Japan often visible in the background. Static framing makes use of straight lines and objects, similar in style to the work of Yasujirō Ozu. The camera’s point of view is raised slightly above eye level, subtlety diminishing characters to the level of specimens. Overall this creates a convincing, deliberate aesthetic that is unobtrusive, absorbing and keenly observational.

The editing and music in Vengeance Is Mine both play key roles in the creation of tension and atmosphere. Narrative progression is rarely forced, as Imamura opts instead for a slow pace that allows shots to develop free of unnecessary editing. Still, large amounts of time are often collapsed with a single cut. This is done in a way that allows sizable temporal jumps to occur without a change in spatial location. The opposite is also employed, as “Sometimes, instead of cutting, Imamura will swiftly cram all we need to know into a single travelling shot – one filled with spatial variety, though the temporal value is constant.” (Donald Richie, 2005). Both of these techniques, despite being functionally opposite, foster a sense of urgency in the viewer, as Enokizu’s impending arrest is constantly coming nearer. The sinister, sparsely used score works in a similar way, as it is comparable to what one might hear in a Hitchcock thriller.

The representation of women in Vengeance Is Mine is in many ways subversive of patriarchal ideologies, although on the surface it appears to be anything but. Women are always serving men throughout the film, in every way they can. They are often hit and forced into sex. Clearly they are treated as the lesser of the two sexes, at least on the surface. Imamura’s views on women developed when he was a young man, where he would interact a lot with the lower-class. “They weren’t educated and they were vulgar and lusty, but they were also strongly affectionate and they instinctively confronted all their own sufferings. I grew to admire them enormously.” Imamura even goes as far as to say that he views women as being stronger than men. This can be seen in Vengeance Is Mine as it is the female characters that come out alive and prosperous in the end. There are exceptions to this, but overall it is an apparent consideration. The portrayal of their social role within the film is a reflection on Imamura’s views on Japanese culture, which are being explored in Vengeance Is Mine through a realistic depiction of society. Thereby, when the women are allowed to persevere beyond Enokizu’s destruction, it is a rejection of traditional narrative conventions and a progressive statement against patriarchal power structures.

Based on a true story and treated as such, Vengeance Is Mine blurs the boundary between reality and fiction. Imamura’s direction is sublime as it places the viewer within the world of the film, alongside a sociopathic protagonist who appears all but dead inside. Unique structure and editing are matched with graceful mise-en-scène and tremendous, haunting performances. Altogether this creates a disturbing, observant exploration into the impact of a serial killer in the wider context of everyday Japanese life.